I wrote this letter about my dad. Nothing more needs to be said.
How, and from whom, do boys learn to be men? Or more to the point in today’s world, how SHOULD they? We learn from the media, from schools and other forms of indoctrination, and if we are fortunate, from our fathers. I was fortunate: I learned mostly from my father, Philip no middle name. I learned by example, as do we all, and it was my good fortune to observe dad practice what he would have his boys believe. You expected preach? He didn’t preach, he said little, but did much, and I am that way too. He believed in treating women with respect and affection, though he was inhibited in how openly and often he demonstrated affection.
My dear mother suffered mightily from bipolar psychosis. Her highs were stratospheric and her lows were catastrophic. He never spoke unkindly of her nor to her, nor did he allow the four children do to so, as much as we would have because our family was periodically torn apart. But most of all, he stayed. He worked, he cared for us when she couldn’t and cared for her in the valleys. He didn’t run away or turn to alcohol to ease his pain. He endured, and I am his son. I don’t run, I don’t numb myself, I also endure. Endurance is my dad’s and my signature trait.
He concerned himself with what was right, not popular, as he learned from his parents. I spent a lot of time with his mother, and she became a mother to me too in a lot of ways. She was outspoken before her time, defending minorities and anyone who was disadvantaged. I learned my outspokenness from her, knowing what dad saw as he was growing up. My father’s favorite story about his mother was this one, which he related to his children often and proudly. Their neighborhood had some racial strife, and one time a crowd of her neighbors gathered under her bedroom window, calling her and my grandfather “nigger lovers.” She calmly put the teakettle on, and when the chanting got louder and the water got hotter, she marched to her room, threw open the window, and ordered the crowd to disperse, showing them the pot of hot water. Wisely, most took her advice. Those who didn’t quickly learned that she wasn’t a bluffer. Oh do I miss her.
I learned about standing up for what you believe even when it’s unpopular, even when there is a cost, especially when there’s a cost. Faith grows greater and stronger under persecution than easy times. I occasionally faltered when confronted with animus, when I was young. My dad showed me how to push through fear. One time, a neighborhood kid picked a fight with me, and I beat him. Soon after, he brought his big brother and a baseball bat to teach me a lesson. When I went home sporting a shiner, and told my dad what happened, he took me with him to the bully’s home, and confronted the big brother and the dad. I just wanted it all to go away. But they backed down and I learned to take a stand.
Now I’m older than my dad was at the time, and the lessons remain. For me, that is. The last time I was plagued with the symptoms of so-called low self esteem was my junior year in high school. Fortunately, in those days–1962–self esteem was considered an effect rather than a cause. You are confronted with challenges, you take steps to overcome them and score some victories, you raise your self esteem as an effect of your efforts. Somewhere in time, self esteem got elevated by the therapeutic establishment to the cause of effort, or lack of it, rather than its proper role as the effect of effort. Low self esteem became the explanation for poor effort, performance, morals and appearance. Instead of something to be earned by overcoming obstacles, self esteem became the thing that had to be elevated before you could even try to overcome obstacles.
How does someone build endurance, or strength? You build endurance gradually by aerobic exercise, you build strength by breaking down muscle to build it stronger. Self esteem is no different. You can affirm yourself constantly, and build a feeling of self esteem, but if you fail to rise to challenges, your self esteem will be worse than ever. Instead of “working on your self esteem” (whatever that looks like), develop courage to tackle obstacles. That was my father’s advice to me, and my advice to you.